The three of us boarded a train bound for Kunming, a small city of three million, about five hours away. Our tickets were for a sleeper car, with beds stacked three high. But instead of using all of the bunks, everyone sat on the bottom one, four to a bed. I ignored this convention and went straight to the top bunk, where I organized my backpack. Soon I felt a yank on my foot, and then I heard a continuous, angry shout. I turned around and saw a train employee who reminded me of Nurse Ratched. Apparently, the “convention” of sitting on the bottom bed was actually a “rule.” After I climbed down, Nurse Rached yelled at me some more, then stormed off. Per an eery custom in China, everyone else around us was locked into a distant gaze, as if completely unaware of the scene unfolding before them.
There were no cockroaches on my overnight train ride to Lau Cai, on the Chinese border. As soon as I stepped off the train, I, along with every other passenger, was hounded by bus drivers looking to take us to Sapa. I bargained one driver from 100,000 dong to 50,000. He put his index finger over his lips and said, “Shh” as I paid him. Apparently he didn't want me to tell any of the other passengers that they had gotten ripped off. Or maybe they had paid even less than I had, and the driver didn't want me to find out. In Vietnam, one never knows.
At last we arrived in Hanoi. This was to be Katie's final destination in Vietnam, and the beginning of my solo overland trip to Beijing. We stayed in the Old Quarter, a small section in the middle of the city. The Lonely Planet calls traffic in the Old Quarter “oppressive,” and I couldn't agree more. Simply walking across the street required absolute concentration and patience to avoid the swarms of motorcycles. But, as in every other Vietnamese city we had visited, Hanoi delighted the senses.
The train was nearly empty, and it left an hour late. Most of the carriages were sleepers, though there were also a couple of hard-seat cars and a luxurious dining car. We spent most of the afternoon watching the ocean-side scenery, including rice fields at the foot of emerald mountains, cemeteries, wooden houses and tropical vegetation. We also passed through several towns and cities. Before coming here, it was hard to imagine what 90 million people, packed into a country twice the size of Wisconsin, might look like. But after seeing city after huge city, I was beginning to understand.
The owner of the "home stay" was a short and slim man with crooked yellow teeth who wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt on top of a wife-beater. All day he sat on his living room couch, smoking cigarettes, playing with his iPad and awkwardly flirting with every female who entered the place. He didn't flirt with me, but he did grab my arm and try to sell me stuff whenever I walked past him. “You could use a suit. My sister has a tailor shop, she'll give you a great price.” “You want to take a tour? My friend can set it up.”
Our Train arrived in Da Nang at 6am. We walked to the main road and got on the bus to Hoi An. The attendant was wearing sunglasses, and a mask covered her mouth. A local woman who boarded the bus in front of us paid 20,000 dong. I tried giving the attendant the same amount, but she demanded 40,000 each. After getting ripped off – and threatened with a knife – in Can Tho, I was already leery of Vietnamese bus attendants. And now we were being charged double, simply because we were foreigners.
Katie and I decided to take a day trip from Can Tho, Vietnam to a small town, about two hours away. At the bus station we found a chaotic jumble of attendants and salesmen running around, trying to drag potential customers into their buses. We went to one company's official ticket window, but none of their buses were going where we wanted. Instead, we walked to the parking lot, where several buses were waiting, and asked the salesmen for guidance.
Katie and I decided travel from Cambodia to Vietnam in style: in an enclosed speed boat down the Mekong River. We climbed aboard and left Phnom Penh early in the afternoon. A few hours into our journey, Katie cracked open a beer. As if on queue, we stopped at the border, where we had to get stamped out of Cambodia. Katie sipped her beer while waiting in line. She commented that it was her first, and probably last, time drinking alcohol at an immigration checkpoint. The officials didn't seem to mind. They simply stamped our passports and we were on our way. Next we got stamped into Vietnam and continued our trip, watching the slow-paced life along the river's shores.